Thursday morning will see the start of the 12th cricket World Cup, as hosts England take on South Africa. The tournament remains below the radar in the country in which it is held, with tickets available for most of the matches and as ever coverage only on pay television. It has been heavily criticised for being just about the only supposedly global tournament to reduce the number of finalists by eliminating smaller countries before it starts, and it still goes on for the better part of two months before unveiling the winner. It’s for that reason many find it hard to get excited in advance – when the end is so far away, the beginning seems barely part of the whole.
And yet. For England in particular, this is what they have been building towards since the omnishambles of four years ago. Test matches, so long the priority for the ECB, were unceremoniously shunted aside in a clear desire to capture the 50 over crown. To a fair extent, the re-prioritising has been successful, as England enter the tournament as favourites and at the top of the rankings, while playing a style of the game that is utterly irresistible much of the time, and falls flat on its face occasionally.
Lifting the trophy on 14th July would represent a justification of sorts, even if controversial in and of itself among England supporters. It is therefore hugely ironic on the one hand, and indicative of the muddled approach at the top of the game, that England’s last warm up before the competition took place at the same time as the last 50 over domestic final as a mainstream cricket event.
That the ECB scheduled an England match at the same time as the Royal London One Day Cup final is one thing – given the way county cricket has been repeatedly scheduled to make it as hard as possible for supporters to attend, suggesting it might be deliberately spiteful is no longer an extreme viewpoint – but scrapping top level 50 over cricket domestically entirely, and because of a new, untried format, is astonishing, even by ECB standards. Some argue that T20 skills translate so directly to 50 over cricket that it will matter little, but any tail off in England performances over the coming years will be linked directly to this decision. It is of course all about ensuring the Hundred takes priority, and if you haven’t read Danny’s piece transcribing and responding to Three Quarters Of a Million Pounds a Year Man Tom Harrison’s interview on BBC Radio, then please do click here: Dissecting the Hundred
The ten team tournament does at least have one positive, in that the round robin nature means everyone plays everyone else, but most important is the lack of quarter finals, which have the effect of rendering the whole group stage largely pointless. To move straight to the semi-finals means that there is peril and jeopardy in each game – every defeat is damaging, every win vital. Whether that is worth the justification for removing what were once associate members is a different question.
England’s form coming into the World Cup has been quite remarkable, a 70% win rate in the 2 years before bettering by some distance any of the winners in the last three editions. Yet even with the addition of Jofra Archer, it is predicated heavily on the power of the batting line up. England don’t appear to be one of those sides boasting prowess in all facets of the game, albeit the high rate at which they leak runs does need to be placed in context: it is a function of England racking up huge scores themselves to at least some extent. England might be favourites, but they have a slight sense of vulnerability about them that will need to be answered in the semi-final and final stage. India will feel they are equivalent, while Australia and New Zealand in particular might feel they have a puncher’s chance – particularly in the former case now that Smith and Warner have returned. On which subject, the bleating about the two of them being booed yesterday was remarkable. Of all the things to become annoyed about currently, this is surely an awfully long way down the list.
Afghanistan are probably the second favourite team in the tournament for most, given both the political background, and the way the ICC so often actively work against the game being taken to new outposts. They continue to get stronger, and if they can pick up a scalp or two, it will be celebrated by all bar the teams they beat. Their bowling attack is potent enough to cause problems that’s for sure. Of the rest, it’s South Africa who have been in the best form without causing many to suggest they’ll go and win it, while Pakistan….who the hell knows and the West Indies may, just may, have turned a bit of a corner.
Of the individual players, Jos Buttler and Virat Kohli are the two most obviously box office. But a World Cup can bring to the fore someone less heralded. That it will probably be a batsman is just where the game is now, and all the insistence that 270 makes for a more interesting game is so much humbug. Close games make for the interest, not the score. Low scoring matches tend to be the most tense because every single ball matters – the same reason a tight Test match is riveting – but to suggest 270 is the optimum scoring level is to ignore decades of everyone drifting off to sleep in the middle overs of an innings when the batsmen just took the singles on offer and the bowlers were content to let them. The balance between bat and ball has always been an issue in limited overs matches of whatever duration, but let’s not pretend there was a golden period where it was perfection.
Ticket prices have always been a factor in World Cups, the empty stadiums in the West Indies in 2007 being the nadir both in terms of unaffordability and the resultant depressingly empty grounds. England this time around should be rather better, though it appears few are sold out at this stage.
As for us on here, we will be trying to cover each game, even if it’s just a couple of paragraphs to lead into it, and who knows, we might even live blog one or two as well.